In The Moment: Episode 44

Timothy Wise with Haley Fenton—The Battle for the Future of Food


In this week’s interview, Town Hall’s own Haley Fenton talks with Timothy Wise about agribusiness and the future of food. Wise outlines the control that corporations like Monsanto have over small-scale farms worldwide. He delves into the profit-motivated decisions that don’t coincide with the needs of farmers or consumers, and highlights the fact that foreign governments are attempting to partner with Monsanto due to funding, which has resulted in the company exerting control over their nation’s crops and production of fertilizers—a direction which Wise asserts is the wrong ecological choice on a global scale. Wise and Fenton examine agroecology and explore strategies for disrupting these harmful patterns.

Episode Transcript

Transcribed by Jini Palmer. Please email typos or corrections to

Jini Palmer: Hello and welcome to In The Moment a Town Hall Seattle podcast where every episode we talk to someone coming to our Town Hall stages. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s mid-October here in Seattle and our rental partners have been hosting some incredible events, Earshot Jazz, Seattle Arts and Lectures, and the Moth Seattle are filling our stages with music and stories. And we’ve got a few fun programs next week with Seattle Radio Theater Halloween edition and our own chief correspondent Steve Scher will be onstage with Anand Giridharadas on October 28th to talk about society’s economic elite and how they’re doing everything in their power to preserve their position on top. Two days later on October 30th Timothy Wise will be gracing our Forum stage to talk about the Battle for the Future of Food, which is our highlight for this episode of In The Moment.

The world of agribusiness has a deeply penetrating control on policy, not only in the U.S. but in small countries in Subsaharan Africa like Malawi. As Tim Wise puts it, agribusiness spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. But shifting the future of agriculture to an agroecology model, even against said goliath forces is a feat worth pursuing for the farmers, consumers, the environment and climate change. Timothy A. Wise is a senior researcher at Small Planet Institute and Tufts University’s Global Development and Environmental Institute and is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Our correspondent for this episode, Hailey Fenton is our Donor Relations Manager here at Town Hall Seattle. She comes from a commercial fishing family, was the head baker of a farm to table restaurant, provided resources on an urban youth farm, organized communities for local food distribution startup and work to get her own hometown food co-op off the ground. So it goes without saying the sustainable food is a passion that both Haley and Timothy share. 


Haley Fenton: My first question for you, I kind of wanted to go back to the beginning. I was really curious, what was your relationship to food like growing up in, in your family?

Timothy A. Wise: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I grew up in a classic suburban family in a very kind of traditional North American household where food was kind of the food of the fifties and sixties, which was kind of the beginning of the processed food world and, and wasn’t actually featured very prominently in our cultural lives. So I feel like my deep appreciation for what it takes to produce food and to enjoy it and to have food embedded in a culture really came from my international travels.

HF: Mm. So it sounds like growing up there wasn’t a lot of questioning around food and where it came from and what you were eating.

TW: No, when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties and there sure wasn’t much attention to that at that point. It’s, it’s amazing to see how much that interest has grown.

HF: So you said that a lot of your appreciation came from your international travels, but do you kind of remember what your first awakening was to our industrial food system?

TW: Well, I know that my first awakening to the injustices that hardworking farmers suffer came in Peru when I was studying as an exchange student. And, and I was just struck by the dramatic landscapes of the Andes. Highland agriculture and steep slopes beautifully tended by very hardworking farmers who were living in desperate poverty because the range of policies that were in place really had them working as in kind of a feudal environment. And, and so that’s what really awakened me to the to just how desperate lives can be for people who work incredibly hard growing food for all of us. I think my appreciation for what industrial agriculture is kind of doing to our, to the larger food world came through a lot of work on United States agricultural policies, but also on the impacts that those policies and our trading agreements and arrangements have on Mexican farmers.

HF: Hmm. Yeah. I think that your work, not only this book but previous works of yours, do a really amazing job of showing what food really is in the context of human lives, which is also economics and public health and politics and gender. And I think that it stresses the importance of it because it, food does touch all of those worlds that I think is highly, highly underappreciated.

TW: Yeah, no, I think, right.

HF: And so you’re obviously well steeped in this world and have so much experience, but in the process of researching and writing this book, were there any surprises or revelations that you had?

TW: Oh, all the time. All the time. I mean one of the most striking conclusions that I draw out in the book is that is just what a deeply penetrating control agribusiness firms have over policy in the US and really even more so in a small country in sub Saharan Africa like Malawi. They just are dedicated to shaping policies in ways that are going to increase their sales and their profits. And that that doesn’t often or usually coincide with what small scale farmers most need or what consumers most want to eat. And so it’s a, I was, I was shocked at the extent to which those companies were really kind of right there in the government’s writing policy. I tell the story in the book of discovering that the seed policy in Malawi and of course of an interview, I was doing that the seed policy in Malawi, which threatened to make it illegal for farmers to save exchange and sell their seeds, which is really where 80% of the food in Africa comes from is from farmers saving their own seeds and sharing them with other farmers that they were threatened to make that make that illegal because the seeds wouldn’t be certified by the government and only crop breeders, commercial crop readers would get that certification. They even went so far as to say that such seeds saved by farmers should no longer be called seeds. They should be called grain worthy of eating, but not planting, you know, in an outrage. Farmers said to me, holding up a kernel of corn, how can we’ve been planning this for generations? How can this not be a seed? But talking to in the course of this interview, I said, I got flustered and said, this policy is so bad. It could have been written by Monsanto. And the guy I was talking to looks down at issues and pauses and looks up and says, well, actually four months into official is one of the authors of the policy. And of course Monsanto’s stands to gain because if all farmers have to start buying seeds every year, they control 50% of the corn seed market in Malawi.

HF: Oh, that is, that’s a lot to take in for sure.

TW: Yeah. But they were, that was not uncommon. That was not uncommon at all. And another, also in Malawi, I, I learned that I was perplexed because one of the most popular corn seeds that had been bred by Malawian farmers been very productive and it was no longer anywhere on the market. And I kept asking why? And someone finally said, Oh, don’t, you know, and I was like, no, what? He said, Oh, the, when the government had to privatized because of international monetary fund austerity program, they sold off the national seed company and Monsanto bought it. And Monsanto properly, promptly shelved the seeds that it didn’t have patents on and substituted seeds. It did have patents on, even though those seeds were far less productive than the ones that that the Malawians had bred for their particular climatic conditions and, and tastes.

HF: And so why are governments so eager to partner with Monsanto?

TW: Well they want foreign investment. And they’ve bought the argument that they need a green revolution for Africa. That’s the big push by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. And they created the Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa in 2006. And the premise is that Africa was bypassed in the first Green Revolution, which brought commercial seeds and fertilizers and other technologies to farmers in India and Latin America, but it didn’t reach Africa. And now African needed its own green revolution. So there’s big money enticing governments to adopt policies that promote just those kinds of inputs as the paths to modernizing their agriculture.

HF: So encouraging these new seeds, encouraging these technologic quote technologically advanced fertilizers and such.

TW: That’s right. And the governments are, many governments are actually subsidizing the purchase by small scale farmers of those inputs at great cost to themselves. And Malawi in one year had spent 60% of its entire agricultural budget on fertilizer and seed subsidies. And, and the tragedy is that they, it’s, there’s very little evidence that it’s working. I did some background research but I was just presenting in Rome at the committee on world food security meetings that shows that, that they’re not getting the kind of productivity increases that they promise that when they do, that’s not translating into reductions in hunger in rural areas. So it’s really a failing strategy. And, and in the current context where we’re all worried about climate change, it’s enticing farmers really paying farmers to give up what are far more climate resilient agricultural practices and substitute for those commercial seeds, monoculture crops. Just corn crops everywhere you look and fed by inorganic fertilizers that are produced using fossil fuels. So  it’s a fossil fuel intensive process that they’re trying to introduce. Really kind of the, the wrong way to go as we think about the changing climate.

HF: So why did corn become the crop of the world? It seems.

TW: Well, it’s not the crop of the world. I think our people would argue probably that rice is the crop of the world. And if you look at Asia and how many people subsist on it, but corn is is particularly amenable to crop breeding and it can be it was developed in Iowa to be so-called high yield by doing a process called hybridization where they created as a different wet form of crop breeding. And it has the great advantage for seed sellers that the yield advantages that you get from this, from these seeds only last one year. So when you sell someone a hybrid corn seed, it will not remain highly productive if you save seeds from that crop and plant them the next year. So you need to buy seeds every year. And that’s really the trap of the green revolution project for Africa, is that farmers are really on the edge financially. And the last thing they need is to be trapped into a system in which they have to buy seeds every year and they have to buy fertilizers or those seeds won’t be highly productive.

HF: Essentially creating demand for forever.

TW: That’s right. That’s the, that’s the trap.

HF: Yeah. So you said that you just returned from Rome where you were presenting your research on Agora and the green revolution to the committee in world food security. Is that right?

TW: That’s right. The annual meetings of the committee on grow on world food security, which take place in Rome every October. And since the food price crisis that’s been, that was designated the kind of lead coordinating body for actions on food security and nutrition in the world.

HF: Can you tell us a little more about what that committee does and what the goal is of that community as far as action goes, as a result of these meetings?

TW: Well, it’s housed at the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations meetings take place there in Rome. Government representatives are there. So it’s a UN body with governments represented often by their agriculture ministers or, or ambassadors to the food and agricultural organization itself. And every year they are taking on kind of important issues that are on a long term agenda, trying to shape a more sustainable path to improve food security and nutrition, particularly in the poorest countries in the world. This year was particularly interesting because the hot button issue on the table was a new expert report that was strongly recommending ecological agriculture as the paths forward. And the dangers of continuing to follow that Green Revolution path. So it was an interesting and an important meeting.

HF: And what was the response to the presentation of that report?

TW: Oh, well, the response in the plenary was very encouraging with all of the different, in a lot of different country representative speaking up. I mean, I’ve been going and attending these things since 2012. I think the narrative has changed dramatically. It’s really, I think climate change has really woken people up to the fact that what we’re currently doing, our current agricultural development model isn’t working. People have noted the F the food and agriculture organization annual hunger report has shown that three straight years hunger, global hunger has increased the number of people and chronically and severely in hunger has increased across the world to over 800 million people with another out with some 2 billion people considered malnourished suffering some form of food insecurity. And that’s happened at a time when actually there’s a global overproduction of, of those commodity grain crops, rice, wheat, corn. So, you know, there you go again. Hunger, amid plenty. What’s, you know, what’s wrong with this picture? And I think there was, you really heard a lot more appreciation from many more government representatives. That business as usual is not an option anymore with change. Making farmers lives much more difficult all over the world, not just in Africa but in Iowa. Right. And so there was a lot more interest in support for, you know, approaches like agroecology, which tries to minimize the use of commercial inputs and maximize the regenerative forms of agriculture that can help rebuild soil fertility. Which is really the foundation for for long term food security. As I argue in the book. That’s how we need to eat. If we’re going to eat tomorrow, it’s going to be because we have adopted practices that rebuild the natural resource space on which our food production depends. Soil, water, climate, seeds.

HF: So it sounds like you left feeling a little hopeful.

TW: I, I did. I am. I’m very hopeful about that change in approach though, the acceptance of that approach. What’s less, what’s more worrying is that as well all of the recent climate change reporting from international institutions as highlighted. We don’t, we don’t have any time to wait to make these changes. Agriculture is contributing some 23% of greenhouse gas emissions by itself. So and the food system as a whole, when you count transportation, everything else, it could well be over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to our food system. So, so it’s urgent that we make those changes. Farmers in sub Saharan Africa who I spent a lot of time with are suffering. You know, it’s not a future looming threat for them. Climate change is upon them and has been for years and it’s, it’s devastating. So they need help adapting their farms to changing climates so they can by growing or wider variety of crops, not just one, which if it fails, you have nothing. I’m doing it in a way that makes their soils healthier. I’m not depleted, which monocultures said by synthetic fertilizers don’t really rebuild soils. They deplete them. I wish I heard the urgency at these, at these gatherings. What you do, what you hear from representatives like the US government representative there is that they don’t want to see anything that impedes the spread of industrial agriculture. The way they put it is we’re going to need all the tools in the toolbox to fight climate change and the tools that they want to promote a new genetically modified drought tolerant varieties of crops. And other commercial innovations that you know, may or may not contribute to helping our, in the long run helping are helping small scale farmers adapt to climate change, but that it’s not what they need now.

HF: And do you think that’s because of a belief that technology and Western intervention is the path to success or because it’s tied to business or both?

TW: I think those are, those are completely intertwined. You know, I in my book I spend a couple chapters looking at the United States one just looking at the Iowa agriculture where I’m essentially asking the question. I mean I title the section, the roots of our problems and ask the question, you know, why are we exporting this maladaptive model to Africa when it really doesn’t seem to be working well for Iowa? But agribusiness reigns Supreme in Iowa for sure and it’s very hard to see much, see many openings for changes because of that. But they truly also believe that they are feeding the world. They’re not, but that’s deeply embedded in the culture of the United States and of USA agriculture that are highly productive. Industrial model of agriculture is feeding the world.

HF: And elaborating on what you said about Iowa and how the United States itself obviously has plenty of issues with industrial agriculture, what are things that folks in the United States can do to participate in this global issue of food sustainability?

TW: Well, we, there’s an interesting new debate. I mean, I can also say that I came out of a book tour in March through Iowa. I spent a week there giving talks about the book. And I came out actually hopeful there too because I think the flooding in the Midwest which has persisted for pretty much the whole summer in some on and off in some parts of the Midwest has awakened to people, to the fact that climate change is coming for them to and that maybe this model isn’t working so well. They have really low crop prices because we’re over-producing almost everything. Farmers are struggling, debt levels are rising. It’s very hard to argue with that. The current model is working very well either for Iowa’s farmers or its consumers. Their waters are very polluted from the chemical runoff and the seepage of chemicals into the groundwater.

They’re losing topsoil. They’ve lost half their top soil in Iowa. Probably the richest agricultural land in the world has lost half of its topsoil to erosion from over-farming and bad farming practices. So there’s, there is an emerging, I think, consciousness that that needs to change and that government policy is where that change is going to happen. So the democratic presidential candidates many of them have very interesting ambitious plans for reshaping the farm bill and other types of farm legislation to essentially they’re proposing to make it encourage what they, some people call carbon farming. Others just call regenerative agriculture where farmers are paid incentivized with subsidies to to adopt more climate friendly and, and environment environmentally sustainable practices. Everything from planting cover crops during the winter to planning patches of one large patches of land and grasslands, which can sequester carbon over the long term and can, can slow the runoff. It’s coming off of agricultural fields.

HF: It sounds hopeful.

TW: No, I, I’m, I was very encouraged by the shift and then again, it’s the shift in the narrative and, and the battle is to translate that into concrete actions when you know that that agribusiness firms and their political allies are going to fight every step of the way if it impedes their profits. I mean, agribusiness, people don’t realize that, that the agribusiness lobby, which is somewhat unfortunately called the farm lobby, like it’s lobbying for farmers spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. So this is a huge lobby that has very clear marching orders from its corporate sponsors and those marching orders are to expand markets for, for, for commercial products here and abroad. That’s why you get this aggressive push to export the industrial model of agriculture to places like Malawi.

TW: You mentioned the shift in the narrative and how important that is. What was the narrative previously and how was it ineffective?

HF: The narrative was driven by again, this sort of modernization, a trope where, you know, small scale farmers using limited technology were backward in developing countries. They needed to modernize, basically, agriculture needed to be recreated in developing countries in the image of the agriculture that we got in the United States with heavily mechanized, very few people working on the farms. Highly chemical intensive and capital intensive, not labor intensive. And that, that would allow developing countries to become high yield producers of food crops and be more food selves, food secure. And you know, that’s not how it’s played out. For most developing countries some sectors within developing countries have become higher oil producers. Like in Mexico. There’s parts of Mexican corn production that are on farms that look every bit like farms in Iowa and have productivity levels as high as well, but that hasn’t made Mexico a food secure country. Mexico now imports something like a third to 40% of it’s corn every year from the United States. It’s not self sufficient in corn. And the quality of that corn is, has gone down Hill as those industrial seeds have replaced native seeds, which corn was domesticated and in Mexico. So it has the richest diversity of corn varieties in the world. A recent survey, nobody believes me when I say this, but a recent survey by the, by the biodiversity Institute in the ministry of agriculture, ministry of environment in Mexico identified 22,000 different unique varieties of corn adapted to their local culinary desires ecological conditions, et cetera. So displacing all of those with one or two strains of hybrid if not genetically modified corn is as a real loss.

TW: And so what would you say is the you’ve been touching on what the new narrative is now, but what would you say is kind of the elevator pitch for the new narrative of the future of agriculture?

HF: Business as usual isn’t an option. We’re growing more commodity crops of food, but we’re not feeding more people. It’s not translating into improved poverty, and reductions in poverty and improved livelihoods for poor people in developing countries. And with climate change, it is both a major contributor. That industrial model of agriculture is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and a very poor model for farmers in developing countries to adapt to climate change. So that’s, that’s the narrative that came out of this committee on world food security meeting. We need to change course the food and agriculture organization of the UN, which has really been one of the main promoters of that green revolution model for years. Now has a program called scaling up agroecology that basically recognizes that fossil fuel intensive agriculture is, is not the future.

TW: And are these the messages that you hope folks walk away with from reading your book?

HF: Yeah, they are. And I hope they walk away hopeful because the, because one of the striking things about researching the book was that everywhere I went, I saw small scale farmers, usually in some sort of farmer associations doing it right. They know that they have a better sense of what works. And they saw often with the help of agricultural scientists ecologists are reshaping their traditional practices to be more highly productive, more resilient to climate change and and less chemical intensive. And it’s working and I’m, I saw community after community where those kinds of projects are really giving farmers and farm families a much more diverse diet, much healthier and, and, and stronger soils and a much more stable income and food source



JP: Timothy Wise is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food and will be in conversation with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty and Africa Coordinator Million Belay on Wednesday, October 30th in our Forum. So come down early, hang out in our library or Otto bar, ask some questions during Q&A, get your book signed and chat with them.

Thank you for listening to episode 44 of In The Moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, Hibou and Seattle’s own Barsuk records. If you can’t make it to an event, you can always hear them on our Arts and Culture, Civics and Science series podcasts. And if you’d like to support Town Hall, consider becoming a member. Head to our website at for more information. Next week, our Chief Correspondent, Steve Scher, will be talking with Dan Hooper about our universe’s first seconds. Until then. Thanks for joining us right here, In The Moment.

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